A large part of this project involves immersing myself in the years I’m covering. Later on this will mean I’m able to include audio from films, radio, TV and eventually the internet. For now it means I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries and reading a fair few books. In order to fill some time between main posts (and feel like my time has been spent in some way productively) I’ll be reporting on these here.
The Victorian Farm was the first of the recent series of all-in historical re-enactments, and was a nice, entertaining way to get an idea of what life in this time was like. It also introduced Ruth Goodman, who seems to be in most of these things, and for good reason – her commitment to the concept is so total that I’m tempted to follow her example. All the episodes are on Youtube, but seem to be blocked in certain countries.
Nearly two decades have passed, and Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s experiments with recording sound have so far not resulted in anything replayable. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, development are taking place which will eventually turn these ideas into commercial recordings. On on November 21st, 1877, Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a device which would be able to play back recorded telegraph messages. The next few years saw frantic experimentation with various media – single-use tinfoil sheets wrapped around cylinders (nearly all of which have unfortunately not survived) and discs of different materials, some of which have proved to be readable (if not particularly listenable) by the people at firstsounds.org.
The first sound you will be able to hear is the vibrations from the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad in Manhatten, the result of an experiment by Charles Batchelor to adapt a phonograph to trace waves on lamp-blacked paper so they could be examined visually. If you can make anything out of this aside from a spooky wind then you’ve done better than I have. Next we have the only substantial bit of tinfoil to be recovered, a brief musical performance of some sort, a recitation of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (probably not by Edison), some laughter and indistinct speech sounds. Then there’s an oddity, an ambitious attempt to create a talking clock by French-American inventor Frank Lambert, the oldest sound recording replayable on its own device. You should be able to make out “twelve o’ clock, five o’clock” and a few other hours.
After these early experiments Edison moved his energies to developing the electric light, and the project was put on the backburner. The second half of this mix has some of the experimental Volta labs disc recordings of the early 1880s, all recorded by Charles Summer Tainter and Chichester Bell, two engineers employed by Alexander Graham Bell. The first of these is little more than a noise, the second a recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy, the third a man repeatedly saying ‘barometer’. The glass plate recording after is slightly more interesting as it contains the following monologue;
It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five. [Trilled R] How is this for high! Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was […] as […], and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.
The machine breaks, and the first recorded obscenity of history is etched into a glass disc. The final two Volta Labs recordings apparently contain dull descriptions of business, the target market for this invention being rich businessmen who wanted to save time in dictating notes.
I won’t spend a moment pretending that this mix is even halfway listenable, but it’s only four minutes long (too short for mixcloud) and it sets us up nicely for next time, when we’ll start to shift focus to things being recorded and not just artifacts of the process.
Most of the sounds here were recovered by the brilliant people here at firstsounds.org
A video of Edison operating his original tinfoil cylinder machine
In-depth research into Frank Lambert’s talking clock
An article on the birth of sound recording
1. Charles Batchelor – Metropolitan Elevated Railroad from 40 feet away
2. Thomas Edison – Schenectady Museum – 22 June 1878 in St Louis, Missouri
3. Frank Lambert – Recording for an experimental talking clock
4. Charls Sumner Tainter – Lateral Electroplated Disc
5. Unknown artist – Green wax disc – Hamlet’s Soliloquy
6. Volta lab – November 17 1884 “Barometer”
7. Tainter / Rogers – Photographic glass plate recording
8. Chichester Bell – Disc on Japan wax, April 1885
9. Chichester Bell – Wax disc, summer 1885
Abraham Lincoln wins the presidential election, setting the scene for the outbreak of the American Civil War at the start of 1861
German chemist Albert Niemann makes a detailed analysis of the coca leaf, isolating and purifying the alkaloid which he calls cocaine.
Japanese Chief Minister Ii Naosuke is assassinated by samurai outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle.
The Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses, the first nursing school based on the ideas of Florence Nightingale, is opened at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
Charles Dickens publishes the first installment of Great Expectations in his magazine All the Year Round.
In China, the Taiping rebels are successful in taking Hangzhou and Suzhou, but fail to take Shanghai
The first British Open is played at Prestwick Golf Club in Ayrshire, Scotland, and is won by Willie Park Sr
Southern Italy joins a union with Piedmont-Sardinia, leading to the creation of the Kingdom of Italy the following year
Beijing’s Old Summer Palace is burned to the ground by orders of British general Lord Elgin in retaliation for mistreatment of several prisoners of war during the Second Opium War.
Anton Chekhov, William Jennings Bryan, Will Keith Kellog, Lizzie Borden, Gustav Mahler, Annie Oakley and J.M. Barrie are born
Charles Goodyear and Arthur Schopenhauer die
The story you may have heard about the birth of sound recording goes something like this; Thomas Edison, alone in the lab after a hard day’s work, manages to record a recital of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” onto a wax cylinder. You may have even think you have heard the recording, but you haven’t. The recording in circulation comes from a 1927 recreation for the Golden Jubilee of the Phonograph ceremony, the original being lost on a sheet of re-usable tinfoil fifty years earlier.
But it really doesn’t matter. The real start date for us is seventeen years earlier than that, on the 6th of April 1860, when French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville decided to add a tuning fork to his experiments with recording the acoustic properties of the human voice. This is what he used – his own invention, the phonoautograph
The phonoautograph was essentially an artificial ear. The barrel worked as an ear canal, a parchment membrane stretched over the end was the eardrum, then a pig bristle or piece of feather functioned as the ossicles, drawing a line of lampblack on a roll of parchment. The result looked like this:
It wasn’t intended to be played back, and it wasn’t – not for another 149 years at least. The story of how the sounds were extracted from these scraps of paper is best told by the people at firstsounds.org who made all of this possible. In 2012 PRI radio show Studio 360 ran a feature on the recovery of the audio, the extended version of which is the best possible sub-10-minute primer on the subject.
…and finally, of course, the actual mix! Consider yourself warned that this is very far indeed from easy listening. Instead of scratches we essentially have slightly tuned white noise, through which you can hear something; not enough to really make out much, but unmistakably a human voice.
…and both MP3s in a single package on Mixcloud, who apparently don’t agree with 2-minute mixes
1. Diapason at 435 Hz–at sequential stages of restoration (1859 Phonautogram)
2. Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 9, 1860)
3. Excerpt from Ducis’s Othello (April 17, 1860)
4. Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 20, 1860)
5. Opening lines from Tasso’s Aminta (undated, probably April-May 1860)
6. Gamme de la Voix – Vocal Scale (May 17, 1860)
7. Jeune Jouvencelle (August 17, 1857)
8. Vole, Petite Abeille – Fly, Little Bee (September 15, 1860)
9. Vole, Petite Abeille – Fly, Little Bee (undated, probably September 1860)
Around this time every year, I’ll post a preview mix. This will be out of the usual monthly cycle, and put up as a placeholder while the year is still warm. When I eventually get round to these years there will be a more considered mix posted in its place.
2016 was, by all accounts, a bit of a rough year. In terms of music, though, it will probably be better-remembered.
David Bowie – Lazarus
Ian William Craig – Contain (Astoria Version)
Buz Ludzha – Basslines For Life
Nadia Rose – Skwod
Yussef Kamaal – Strings of Light
DJ Fresh & High Contrast ft. Dizzee Rascal – How Love Begins
Chance The Rapper – All Night (feat Knox Fortune)
Alex Anwandter – Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazon
Metronomy – Old Skool (Fatima Yamaha Remix)
Kero Kero Bonito – Waking Up
Frightened Rabbit – Get Out
Hannah Epperson – Iodine (Iris)
Jessy Lanza – It Means I Love You
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
A Tribe Called Quest – We The People…
Mark Prichard – ?
Shura – What’s It Gonna Be?
Kaytranda – Lite Spots
Anna Lunoe – Radioactive
French Montana – Lockjaw ft. Kodak Black
Solange – Cranes In The Sky
King – The Greatest
Innercity Ensemble – III
Neiked Ft. Dyo – Sexual
Joey Purp Ft. Chance The Rapper – Girls
Graphs – Foxdie
Royalston, August Storm – Jungle Gone Down (Kimyan Law Remix)
Logistics – Icarus
Urbandawn – Still Breathing (feat. Keeno)
Rawtekk – Harbour
Hedvig Mollestad Trio – Approaching / On Arrival
Blanck Mass – D7-D5
Pye Corner Audio – Ganzfeld Effect
DUDS – No Remark
Beyonce – Sorry
Ngaiire – Diggin
Lindstrøm – Closing Shot
Anoushka Shankar – Boat To Nowhere
ANOHNI – Crisis
Autechre – Latentcall
Aphex Twin – CheetahT2 (Ld Spectrum)
Young M.A – OOOUUU
Julianna Barwisk – Beached
Radiohead – Daydreaming
Shura – The Space Tapes
Christopher Tignor – The Will and the Waiting
Nick Cave – Distant Sky
Coming tomorrow: 1859-1860